Where have all the senators gone?

  • Reading time:8 mins read

I mean the real senators as we have known them in the past, who lived up to the etymology of the term (from Latin senex, old man), and who embodied the ancient tradition of the Council of Elders of selfless people who had no other interest or motive but to share their wisdom accumulated over decades to ensure the welfare of their community.

Compared to our senators now, the time of real senators even seems to be a mythical age of political titans.

In the 1930s there were the likes of Claro M. Recto, who challenged the ideological hegemony of US colonialism, and Senate President Manuel Quezon, whose skill in running circles around the colonizers is revealed by new historiography. In the 1940s, there were fiery nationalists like Lorenzo Tanada and Carlos Garcia. Then in the 1950s, we had Filipino industrialist Gil Puyat, and Mariano Cuenco, who remains unchallenged as the best politician Cebu has ever produced.

The 1960s was the decade of political demigods: Soc Rodrigo, Jose Roy, Lorenzo Sumulong , Ferdinand Marcos, Benigno Aquino, Gerardo Roxas, Jovito Salonga, Jose Diokno, and Raul Manglapus. Before feminism took off elsewhere in the world we had senators Maria Kalaw Katigbak, Pacita Madrigal Gonzalez, Eva Estrada Kalaw and Helena Benitez.

Even after martial law, we had real senators like Neptali Gonzalez, Teofisto Guingona Jr., Alberto Romulo, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and of course, my colleague in this newspaper Francisco Tatad. Joker Arroyo and Juan Ponce Enrile, if we exclude his sell-out in the Corona impeachment case, are the last of the breed of real senators.

Above, the Senate 2nd Congress (1950-53). Below, Senate 16th Congress (2013-2016) senators telling a congressman he is not welcome in the hearing

While I haven’t had the time to do rigorous research, the Council of Elders, aka the old Senate, seems to have had the following qualifications:

• Most were lawyers, which after all, is nearly a requirement as the Senate’s main work is to make laws. Those who were not lawyers, however, distinguished themselves in an important field (Senator Eva Kalaw, for instance, was a distinguished educator) or served at least a decade in a Cabinet;

• Most were veteran politicians, either as congressmen or as governors for several terms;

• Most, with the notable exception of Benigno Aquino, became senators only in their mid-50s. I think the median age of senators when they assumed such post of all 11 Congresses was 60.

That was the period when it was totally inconceivable for one senator in an official televised session to harangue his/her colleague as a thief or a womanizer or for senators to bully “resource persons” they invited in aid of legislation. It was inconceivable for a senate president to be accused of corruption on a grand scale.

I belabor my point: Today’s crop of senators consists of pygmies – intellectually, politically, and even morally—compared to the Elders of the past Congresses from the 1930s and even the ‘90s.

Eleven are merely members of, to use a term top executive Manuel V. Pangilinan invented to make fun of Augusto and Fernando Ayala, the Lucky Sperm Club. They would never have been senators if not for their fathers (or uncles): Edgardo Angara, Bam Aquino, Nancy Binay, Jinggoy and JV Ejercito, Teofisto Guingona 3rd, Koko Pimentel 3rd, Ramon Revilla, Alan and Pia Cayetano, and Bongbong Marcos.

And as many of them are demonstrating now, especially in the Blue Ribbon Committee, intelligence, decency, and fairness aren’t inherited.

If they had some measure of decency to respect the tradition and principle of the Senate of the Republic, Angara, Aquino, and JV Ejercito should have, instead, learned more about politics – and the world – as congressmen or governors. Why should the Senate be their university to learn about politics?

You could include, as member of the Lucky Sperm Club, Sen. Sergio Osmena 3rd, but he, along with Loren Legarda, owes his political career more to the powerful ABS-CBN broadcasting hegemony. Grace Poe and Ramon “Bong” Revilla are all members of the Lucky Sperm Club, as well as of the new club that would probably dominate the Senate in our lifetime: the media-based Celebrity Club.

Despite his self-image that his six-year detention for a noble cause has destined him to be President (as Hitler also believed for himself), Sen. Antonio Trillanes 3rd owes his status as an Elder really to his being a member of the Celebrity Club.

If not for the media’s, especially TV’s, portrayal of him as a dashing officer fighting against an unpopular president, and if not for the opposition’s exploitation of his “winnability” to throw P200 million into his campaign kitty, Trillanes would now be just – as many of his colleagues are – the security head of some hotel.

Because of the nature of celebrity-creation, Trillanes though, owes much to his parents. If he looked like his fellow Manila Pen conspirator ex-general Danilo Lim, or that sergeant who harangued everyone during that event, I don’t think he would have become a senator.

I really don’t know why our Senate from the 1930s to as late as the mid-1990s consisted of such respectable, experienced, and knowledgeable Elders. Perhaps the elite at that time made sure that only such people would become senators.

How did we come to have such a Senate as lousy as we have now?

Perhaps the answer is found in one word: Media.

The Church before the 20th century determined who was good, who was bad, and who was to rule. Thus, all kings without exception, and in all cultures, ruled because they were supposed to have been ordained by God to do so. The nobility traced their origins to some divine bloodline or fealty to kings.

In modern society, the Church has been replaced by Media. The process has been gradual, and one can’t pinpoint an exact year when this started, but I suspect in our case it started in the 1990s.

The Media doesn’t even need to argue that so and so deserves to be senator. All it has to do is to put such person in the media limelight for so long, but without alleging him to be a thief.

If you’ve voted, you’d have experienced what I, and most voters, have. You have to fill up 12 spaces with the names of the senators to be voted into office. You think that only two, or maybe four, really deserve to be senators, and you write their names down. You look at the ballot and you feel the spaces you left blank have been wasted. And in the recesses of your mind, the image of two or three candidates appear—because you saw them on TV or heard them speak over the radio—and you write their names, after you whisper to yourself, “Sige na nga.” (There’s a term for this phenomenon: name recall.)

Eureka, if a million voters had the same experience, jerks become senators of the Republic. Something is terribly wrong with our system of direct national voting for senators. In the US, senators are voted by the state, so that the voters know who they are voting for. In our case, how would a voter in Tawi-tawi really know who Trillanes or Cayetano is, except for that phenomenon called “name recall”?

Grace Poe was – and really still is —an utter tabula rasa in the masses’ mind, but her constant media exposure (especially by ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer) and the fact that she has the comely looks that are required for a celebrity, have catapulted her in just two short years as a contender not only for the vice-presidential, but even presidential race in 2016.

Whoever invented democracy, of course, had no idea that one day there would be such a powerful thing as media that could tell the masses who is good and who is bad.

In the US, the hegemony of media is challenged by its system of primaries by which candidates are put through the wringer, so to speak, by first hurdling their own parties’ selection process. In the parliamentary system, one who would be Prime Minister would have to prove to his peers that he is, indeed, primus inter pares.

Not so in the Philippines.

The worst case ever: Sheer sympathy for his mother’s death, and the superstitious notion that goodness can be inherited, and media that disseminated such nonsense catapulted a spoiled underachiever to the presidency, and we are suffering for that.

Is there hope for our country?